McDonnell achieves mixed results in trying to reform Virginia’s schools


Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell is greeted by supporters as he makes his way into the House chamber to deliver the State of the Commonwealth Address at the State Capitol in Richmond on Jan. 9. (Bob Brown/AP/ Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Robert F. McDonnell ran for Virginia governor promising to reform public schools by offering parents more accountability and better teachers and giving them greater school choice by growing the state’s tiny list of charter schools.

In his final push in the General Assembly this year, McDonnell (R) backed successful bills to bring Teach for America to Virginia, give grades to schools using A through F report cards, fine-tune a voucher-like program to help poor students attend private schools and institute a state board that would take over chronically underperforming schools.

But on some signature issues, he fell short of his promise to transform public education, reformers said. His initial attempt to make it easier to fire teachers was defeated, and his plan for performance-based pay was only partially funded. Statewide, there still are only four charter schools.

His overall record has alarmed many of Virginia’s Democratic lawmakers and educators, who say a shift toward private alternatives could undermine the state’s public schools. But nationally, reform activists say they are frustrated that despite an explosion of education innovations during the past four years, Virginia still lags behind other states.

Jeanne Allen, president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, called Virginia “a black mark for the movement” and McDonnell’s leadership “extremely disappointing.”

But the governor’s calls for change seemed misplaced to many Virginians, who are proud of their school systems, their early adoption of rigorous academic standards and their high national rankings. Education Week placed Virginia No. 4 in the nation this year for its overall student achievement and education policies — an accolade often cited in Richmond. Some argued that what the schools need are more resources to better achieve standards already in place; Virginia ranks 38th in the country for its share of per-pupil funding.

“When you have the fourth-ranked education state, it’s an uphill battle to educate folks on something completely different,” said Javaid Siddiqi, Virginia’s deputy secretary for education. “But there is a significantly different conversation happening around charter schools and [public education] than there was” four years ago.

The lack of urgency is fueled by nationally renowned suburban school systems that largely foot the bill for local schools and “do not like being challenged” as well as an overall climate where people “want to focus on things that are going well,” said Andrew Rotherham, an education consultant and former member of the state Board of Education.

Less often noted are trouble spots. Only one in five African American eighth-graders, for example, scored proficient or better on a national mathematics test.

McDonnell’s administration ran counter to reformers early in the governor’s term. The federal government’s 2010 Race to the Top competition sent dozens of states scrambling to adopt national academic standards or education policies that link teacher evaluations to test scores.

The governor was initially enthusiastic about the president’s reform agenda, but after Virginia came in 31st out of 41 states in the first round, he pulled out of the running, citing excessive “federal mandates” and state standards that were “much superior” to proposed national standards.

McDonnell struggled early on to gain traction with his plan to expand charter schools. He proposed giving the state Board of Education authority to approve charter applications, shifting that exclusive power from local school boards, which historically have been unreceptive.

The proposal failed, as did efforts to amend the state constitution to make it easier for other governing bodies to oversee local schools.

Instead, Virginia created an advisory committee on the state board to offer an initial technical review of charter applications and a chance to strengthen them before local school boards cast the final vote.

Siddiqi said the administration had to overcome confusion and misinformation among school leaders about what publicly funded charter schools are and how they might be helpful.

“That mountain was one we did not fully appreciate or anticipate,” he said.

As a result, state Education Secretary Laura Fornash said, the administration has worked to promote school choice in different ways.

McDonnell made way for virtual schools to grow in Virginia by allowing public schools to contract for online programs and pushing a requirement that all high school graduates take at least one online course.

In 2012, the General Assembly also approved a voucher-like program, modeled after similar efforts in Florida and Pennsylvania, that would give tax breaks to businesses and individuals to help fund private school tuition for poor children.

The plan to use tax money for private schools was hotly contested by teachers unions and many Democratic lawmakers.

Also controversial was McDonnell’s plan to create a state-level board that would take over persistently low-performing schools. The “school board in the sky,” as opponents called it, could hand over management to a charter operator or university. The proposal, borrowed from a similar approach in Louisiana, passed narrowly this year but was only partially funded. It will probably be subject to a lawsuit.

Although some national reformers wonder whether the plans will have a sizable impact, many Democratic lawmakers in Virginia said the plans signal a troubling shift.

“There’s no doubt this is a major change,” House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) said. “We’re moving more to private initiatives and private alternatives to public education. At the same time, we’re moving toward more state control of education.”

Democrats also fought hard against the governor’s initial efforts to roll back job protections for teachers. McDonnell made an unsuccessful attempt last year to abolish due process for teachers facing termination.

This year, he came back with support from the teachers union and won passage of a less radical bill that pushes back a teacher’s probation from three years to five, part of his original plan, but preserves due process. The bill clarifies that a teacher can be recommended for dismissal after one unfavorable evaluation.

His early advocacy for performance pay finally resulted in a $15 million optional grant program passed this year, although only about $5 million was set aside in the budget.

Many critics said a challenge for McDonnell’s reform package overall was an unwillingness to put enough resources behind new initiatives, a holdup that will make it difficult for them to succeed.

Allen said reform-oriented investors and entrepreneurs have been watching Virginia since McDonnell was elected to see whether it might be a promising place to work. But she said that lately they have been saying, “Oh my gosh, it probably won’t change anytime soon.”

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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